Though he pronounced the words patrie and Paris in that speech, de Gaulle failed to mention an equally sacred word: “Republic.” Standing behind him, Georges Bidault, a leader of France’s resistance movements, was on the verge of tears. He hurriedly urged de Gaulle to declare the Republic. Had not thousands of resistance fighters, during these dark years, given their lives to resurrect what had been buried four years earlier?
Peering down on the slightly built Bidault, de Gaulle replied imperiously: “The Republic has never ceased to exist. […] I am myself the president of the government of the Republic. Why should I proclaim it?”
Q. E. D.
This exchange — shot through with the lingering doubts over de Gaulle’s intentions, the inevitable divisions between the internal resistance movements and the London-based Gaullists, and the postwar atmosphere of exultation and exhaustion — came to mind as I read Agnès Poirier’s Left Bank. Not because Poirier recounts it — she doesn’t. Instead, she quotes, with a bit of color, de Gaulle’s celebrated lines about Paris. And then, like the procession down the Champs-Élysées the day following the speech, Poirier clatters on to her next stop while the crowd, momentarily thrilled, disperses without much thought of what had just passed.
Left behind, holding brooms and buckets, are the historians.
As one of those historians, let me try to clean things up. Poirier is a French journalist who divides her time — more happily, I hope, than de Gaulle did in the early 1940s — between London and Paris. A career in journalism is hardly a handicap to writing history; from Alistair Horne to Alan Riding, reporters have given us riveting and revealing accounts of France’s fall and occupation.
Poirier? Not so much. First of all, her book is littered with mistakes that a desk editor, not to mention her book editor, should have caught. An abbreviated list includes Poirier’s claim that Philippe Pétain “declared himself head of the French state in 1940.” (He did not. Instead, the elected deputies of the National Assembly — minus, that is, the communists and socialists who were on the lam — bestowed this role on Pétain by giving him “pleins pouvoirs,” or full powers.) She states that it was only after France’s liberation that Albert Camus “rejected Marxism.” (After a brief spell in the Communist Party during the mid-’30s, he put both communism and Marxism behind him.) She describes Isaiah Berlin as a “historian,” but he was, in fact, a political theorist. She claims that Camus’s wife, Francine Camus, was a “concert pianist.” (A trained pianist, Francine earned her living as a math teacher.) She informs us that the French press gave the name “existentialism” to the school of thought associated with Sartre and de Beauvoir. (It was the influential Catholic thinker Gabriel Marcel, who never appears in her book, who came up with the label.) In a paragraph bristling with acronyms, not only does she claim that CGT stands for “Communist Trade Union” — it stands for the Confédération générale du travail — but she also feels the need to tell us the CIA stands for the Central Intelligence Agency (as opposed, I guess, to the Communist Intelligence Agency).
The list goes on, but let’s cut Poirier some slack: these are, after all, more or less superficial mistakes. Alas, the problem is that Poirier repeatedly sinks below the surface, plumbing a deeper level of mistakes and misunderstandings. In her presentation of existentialism, she declares that there “was no longer any room for complacency and ambiguity” in postwar Paris. Perhaps this was true for complacency, but a student who has taken Existentialism 201 knows that ambiguity was and will always be a basic and brute datum of our lives.
Equally botched is Poirier’s depiction of the postwar trial of the writer and Nazi collaborator Robert Brasillach. Not only does she fail to explain Camus’s reasons for signing the controversial petition asking Charles de Gaulle to commute Brasillach’s death sentence (and not, as Poirier believes, pardon him), but she also fails to mention Camus’s reasoning. As Camus told Marcel Aymé, the reactionary writer who started the petition, he despised Brasillach, but signed the petition because of his opposition to the death penalty.
In perhaps the most egregious failure to fill out a story, Poirier makes much of the roundup of 300 or so American women in September 1942. They were herded into the vacant monkey house at the zoo in the Bois de Boulogne, where Poirier tells us that while they lacked freedom “they were better fed than in Paris.” No doubt they were also better fed than the 12,000 or so French and foreign Jews who, less than two months earlier, had been rounded up by French police and tossed into the bicycle arena, the Vélodrome d’Hiver, and eventually shipped to Auschwitz. Poirier mentions this event in a single line, even though it marked a turning point in public opinion and resistance activity.
Once again, the list goes on. But we need to take up a different kind of failure, one that involves the basic due diligence historians expect not just of one another, but also of their students: to have, at the very least, read the books one chooses to discuss. As far as I can tell, Poirier mostly hasn’t, instead depending on others who have read these works.
She discusses the career of Jean Bruller, who under the pen name of Vercors wrote a classic of resistance literature, The Silence of the Sea. If Poirier did read the book, she skipped the ending. She states that the story’s narrator and his niece, who are forced to billet a German officer, “refuse to talk” to him. This, of course, conveys the message of resistance to the German occupation. But it isn’t so simple. Poirier does not tell us how the story ends: when the officer leaves for the Eastern Front, not only has the uncle already engaged him in a short and human exchange, but the niece whispers, “Adieu,” as the officer closes the door behind him. These last gestures, of course, utterly change the novella’s meaning.
Or take Samuel Beckett. Each and every time Poirier brings up one of his works, whether it is Watt or Molloy or even Waiting for Godot, she does not lead us to the texts themselves, but instead to summaries from Anthony Cronin’s (masterful) biography of the author. This helps explain her apparent indifference to how Beckett’s flight (with Suzanne Déchevaux-Dumesnil) from Paris to Southern France, after the Nazis uncovered his resistance cell, bled into the landscape and atmosphere of Waiting for Godot. As for Beckett’s slow but seismic shift from writing in English to French during the war — a decision we might call an act of linguistic resistance — Poirier has nothing at all to say. With apologies to Beckett, Poirier fails, tries again, and fails worse.
Just as she gloms onto Cronin’s Beckett, she clings to biographer Oliver Todd’s Camus. The Stranger remains a stranger, Sisyphus might as well be pushing a pram up the mountainside, and The Rebel is all revved up but with no where to go. Though we put down the book none the wiser about Camus’s ideas or insights, we come to know more than we ever wished to about his excessive drinking and serial infidelities. As for the remarkable period during which Beckett wrote his novels Malone Dies and The Unnamable along with Waiting for Godot, all Poirier has to tell us is that he “found his stride,” before shifting to his sex life. He found, she tells us, happiness (an odd quality to associate with the Irishman) with prostitutes.
Indeed, what we get is a pile-up of preening, partying, and priapic Parisians. A better title for the book would have been Left Mountebanks: When Paris Intellectuals Go Wild. Call me a prude, but I’d like a bit of historical and philosophical substance along with repetitive and ultimately dreary accounts of substance abuse. In her CliffsNotes-lite approach, Poirier writes: “Like Beauvoir in Le Sang des autres (The Blood of Others), Sartre was addressing the issue of commitment or, as they called it, engagement.” That’s it. Not another word about de Beauvoir’s novel, and scarcely another word about engagement. Except, that is, if it has to do with this group’s inability to be faithfully and fully engaged to a spouse or lover for any longer than it took the Germans to defeat France in 1940.
When an instance of bed hopping isn’t available to swap for a moment of text glossing, Poirier finds something else to plug in. Thus, when she introduces Sartre’s famous public address on existentialism, she helpfully tells us that he “loosened his tie slightly and started explaining his idea of engagement and moral responsibility in a very accessible way.” But rather than explaining his explanation, Poirier instead tells us about the rash of fainting spells in the overheated auditorium. In her account of Sartre’s wartime play The Flies, Poirier states that through this “reworking of Aeschylus’s Oresteia, Sartre had managed to talk about occupied France.” But rather than telling us how he had talked about this state of affairs — much less how he reworked the Greek tragedy — she shifts immediately to Sartre’s meeting with Albert Camus — a.k.a. the “Gallic Humphrey Bogart” — at play’s end.
The second invasion of Paris, this time by the wave of postwar American writers, receives identical treatment. In her telling, Paris becomes Ogygia, where Norman Mailer and Art Buchwald, Saul Bellow and Richard Wright fall, like Odysseus, for the Calypso-like charms of this “capital of sin and libertinage” (an epithet that Poirier uses more than once). In her account, it seems that Paris’s raison d’être was to serve as a “great place for discreetly conducting extramarital affairs.”
Perhaps even all of this could be forgiven, if not forgotten, if Poirier’s account was the narrative tour de force promised by the book’s blurbs. The back cover guarantees “rich,” “subtle,” “brilliant,” and “compulsive reading.” But Poirier’s writing, like her textual analysis, lurches between the flat and fatuous. On the night Camus and Maria Casarès meet: “They could not stand it anymore; something had to give.” On the Allied landings at Normandy: “As the boats approached the beaches, some prayed, others gritted their teeth, but all had learned by heart what was expected of them.” On liberated Paris: “[A] hundred shades of soot and grime suited its spirit and matched its troubled spirit.”
How many shades can soot, even Parisian soot, have? One to match each of its spirits?
In the book’s introduction, Poirier declares that she spent “days at the French National Library” in order to “[cross-check] information through a multitude of sources, press cuttings, interviews, archives, photographs — as many and varied documents as I could lay my hands on.” This is a perplexing claim: a glance at her endnotes — tellingly, there is no bibliography — reveals a desert where one expects an oasis of primary sources. There is, in the end, a small lump of biographies and memoirs, wrapped in a couple of old newspapers. An afternoon with the bouquinistes lining the Seine, rather than days in the bowels of the BNF, would have sufficed for Poirier’s research.
Equally perplexing is Poirier’s method. She insists that her book is not an “academic analysis,” but instead a “collage” or “kaleidoscope.” At the same time, though, it is also a “narrative” and “reconstruction.” The last time I looked through a kaleidoscope, I did not see a narrative, while a collage is not at all the same thing as a reconstruction. Instead, these conflicting approaches suggest a lazy person’s guide to writing history, one that amounts to the arbitrary stringing together of scenes and conversations one has collected, willy-nilly, from a few days of book-combing.
Histoire outragée? Yes, but as de Gaulle might have said, history has not ceased to exist, and serious historians will always be around to tell it.
Robert Zaretsky teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston. He is the author of numerous books and articles on French intellectual history. He is the history editor at LARB, and his latest book — Catherine and Diderot: An Empress, a Philosophe and the Fate of the Enlightenment — will be published next year by Harvard University Press.